Conversation with Doug Whiteway (aka C.C. Benison)

Ten-Lords-a-Leaping-160I’ve long planned to have a virtual sit-down with Winnipeg crime writer Doug Whiteway and I’m very happy that he has accepted the invitation.

Prior to turning to crime, Doug Whiteway worked as a writer and editor for, among others, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Beaver magazine. He still keeps a hand in nonfiction editing and writing alongside his career as a mystery novelist.

He has published seven mystery books under the pen name C. C. Benison. The first, Death at Buckingham Palace, featured Jane Bee, a Canadian who flukes her way into a job as a maid in the Queen’s household and solves the crime with an assist from none other than Her Majesty. There were two more in this series: Death at Sandringham House and Death at Windsor Castle. Staying with England as a setting, Whiteway/Benison’s most recent books follow the exploits of Father Tom Christmas, the new vicar in the village of Thornford Regis. Twelve Drummers Drumming came out in 2011, followed by Eleven Pipers Piping and the most recent, Ten Lords A’ Leaping. He hasn’t neglected his home town either; Death in Cold Type is set in Winnipeg.

See the C. C. Benison website here: www.ccbenison.com and our e-chat below.

CM: Like me, you chose a member of the clergy as a protagonist of your current series. Father Tom Christmas is an Anglican priest in the small English village of Thornford Regis. What drew you to that subject matter?

DW: I’m not entirely sure I’ve explained it to myself, but even though I’m happy to read detective novels where the investigator is a professional –– either a private detective or a member of a police force -– I’m more attracted to writing a character who is essentially an amateur detective, a somewhat ordinary person who is thrust into solving a crime through force of circumstance. It may be partly that I think ordinary people can solve problems if they put their heads to it or it may be that I don’t want to spend much time in the head of a policeman. I’m not sure. Anyway, what attracted me more specifically to a clergyman is partly that a priest or minister or rabbi has the benefit of being more likely to be granted entrance into people lives and homes than people in many other professions or walks of life. They’re counsellors and problem solvers and, in a village milieu, community leaders, so it seems less likely to strain readers’ credulity if they involve themselves in the resolution of a crime. I’m also attracted to the moral dilemmas that a priest may face. Clerics, I think (though perhaps I’m being unrealistic) are obliged to consider some of the wider implications of their actions and those of others.

CM: The setting in the Father Christmas books feels very authentic to me. How do you get all those details right and prevent Canadianisms from sneaking through?

DW: I think, suffering as I do from anglophilia, that I’ve spent a lot of time either consciously, or just below the surface of consciousness, paying attention to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the British and to various aspects of their culture. It started early. My ancestry is English and Scottish; two of my grandparents were born in the U.K (one in Devon, which is the setting of the Fr. Christmas mysteries); there was very little Can Lit growing up, so a lot of what I read as a child or young adult was produced in the U.K. or set there or the like. Then, when I was a teenager, there was the British Invasion in music and pop culture, which had a reinforcing effect.  I’ve been to England lots of times, particularly during the writing of the Father Christmas series and the earlier Jane Bee series, so that helps in soaking up detail and atmosphere. As for the Father Christmas books, their authenticity owes something to the fact that the fictional Thornford Regis is based very much on an actual south Devon village named Stoke Gabriel, so the street patterns, the major buildings (like the pub and the church) and the landscape is, in a way, a kind of faithful journalistic recording –– only I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent, or the guilty, as the case may be. And, of course, these days, there’s so much available on the Internet. You can download BBC and ITV TV programs easily, listen to BBC live or on podcast, or visit parts of England through Google street view. Even for all that, Canadianisms likely do creep in, but the person most likely to catch them first is my American editor, who’s pretty much an anglophile herself.

CM: It must be the archivist in me, but I love reading Madrun’s letters in the Father Christmas books, complete with typos, of course. Can you talk about Madrun’s epistolary voice and how it came to you?

DWI would love to answer this question thoroughly, but search my mind as I might I can’t recall what exactly suggested an epistolary voice to me. A little of it may be that I wanted to play a bit with the storytelling conventions of the crime novel, but where the notion of letters came from I’m not sure. Clearly, a piece of brain has gone missing. Once I’d determined to have letters, however, I modeled them after the letters my mother and her sisters would write to each other. In the days when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, they would write frequently to each other, and in a breezy, chatty, completely unselfconscious style, complete with crossings-out and reconsidered thoughts. When I wrote Madrun’s letters, I would try to replicate the way they wrote letters (or the way I imagined they wrote letters); that is, quickly and with no concern for literary effect. Of course, when you’re creating them as fiction for a wider audience, speed and no concern for literary effect go out the window.

CM: Ten Lords A’ Leaping is your seventh mystery novel and the third Father Christmas book. How has the mystery fiction landscape changed since your first book?

DW: I think years ago I would have said the meat of a mystery is the puzzle and the sizzle is the characterization and the setting, but today I would say it’s the other way around (though crime novels with rich settings and fine characterization is the continuation a longish trend, helping a little to erase boundaries between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction.) I think, too, there’s a greater reader interest within Canada, and outside the country as well, in Canadian settings and characters than there was in decades past, not to mention there are more Canadian writers working within the genre than ever before. These are good things. On a less cheerful note, what has changed in more recent years is the increasing difficulty of getting published and generating revenue from publication due in large measure to the consolidation of publishers into larger and larger conglomerates seeking the new blockbuster and the dampening effect of Amazon on prices (great for the consumer, not great for the producer).

CM: How do you feel about the conventions of the mystery genre now? Are you constrained by them, comforted by them, or are you tempted to defy them?

DW: All three actually, and sometimes all at the same time. One of the pleasures of the genre is working within a highly organized structure and recognized conventions. You’re provided with bare bones that you can enflesh with your own characters and ideas. I think this can be particularly useful if you’re starting out writing fiction: there are so many things you have to get right in a novel that will attract readers, why not have at least have some part of it already provided for you? (I’ve always liked the idea of infiltrating genre forms and filling them up with ideas or subversive notions –– not that I’ve ever done it myself!) That said, the conventions can be a bit constraining at times. While rationality lies at the heart of crime fiction, the neat resolution that comes at the end of each novel rarely mirrors what we know real life (so-called) to be, so there are moments when I’d like, say, to write a more ambiguous ending, though I know readers would find this most unsatisfying. I think by and large the conventions have to be respected, so if I find myself tempted to defy them––and I do––then the solution is to work within another genre. (See next question.)

CM: One of your novels, Death in Cold Type, is set in Winnipeg. Do you think you might do another Winnipeg book sometime?

DW: Yes! I’ve completed a manuscript for a novel set largely in Winnipeg and along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg (though there are excursions to Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and New York). The working title is “Paul is Dead” and it follows two characters who face the consequences forty years later of a crime they committed in their youth, in the late 1960s. It’s more of a howdunnit and whydunnit (whodunnit you’ll learn in the first few pages and the victim’s name is in the title.) If it has to be categorized (and publishers love categories!) it would be in the realm of psychological thriller.

The Sleeping Porch

To beat the heat, our near ancestors loved to sleep outside in the fresh air or as close to outside as could be practically managed.

Thus was born the sleeping porch or sleeping balcony–a large second floor porch, often screened-in, and usually located at the back of the house. My two brothers had bedrooms on the third floor of the house where we grew up. Come July these rooms became as hot as cauldrons. So in mid-June, they would move to our sleeping porch.

Sleeping porches reached the height of their popularity in the years prior to World War I when houses in neighbourhoods like Wolseley and Crescentwood were just being built and sold. A sleeping porch was a definite selling feature as this ad from the Winnipeg Free Press from 1913 shows.

ad for house on Home Street

House for sale on Home Street

Increases in lot size after World War II meant that there was less need for sleeping porches in the new suburbs. The sprawling ranch bungalow with bedrooms on the main floor and in the basement dealt with the problem of heat rising and pooling on upper floors. That coupled with the advent of air-conditioning in the 1960s dealt a fatal blow to the sleeping porch.

But there was something magic about the sleeping porch and I envied my brothers for being able to sleep there. If you could sleep in a tree house, the experience would be similar—up high, surrounded by night sounds, with the moon and stars close, and with bird sounds all around you as the sun came up.

Here’s a modest sleeping porch.

sleepin porch small

And this one is a little fancier.

sleeping porch big

Going the Distance

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Since the Manitoba Marathon is coming up, I thought I would share some of the research I did for the foot race scene in Put on the Armour of Light.

The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 featured a race from the town of Marathon to Athens and this race sparked renewed interest in long distance road races. However, the Hamilton Around the Bay Race, at 30 kilometres, was first run in 1894, two years before the Athens marathon and three years before the first Boston Marathon.

It took a while for other cities in Canada to follow Hamilton’s lead. Early running competitions in Winnipeg had taken place on the track at the Old Exhibition Grounds or at River Park during track and field meets. The maximum distance of these races was a mile and a half. And in fact, the running coaches of the day actively discouraged runners under the age of 18 from running longer distances because there was a danger, they thought, of a kind of career-ending burn out.

Starting in 1905 the Winnipeg Telegram newspaper began sponsoring an annual 20 mile run from the Telegram offices on the corner of McDermot and Albert, down Portage Avenue to a point past Deer Lodge, where there was a turnaround. This race continued for at least eight years.

T_Longboat,_the_Canadian_runner_Running_(HS85-10-18315)

Tom Longboat

During these years, Canadian runners were racking up wins in North American racing circles. Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, won the Hamilton race in 1906 and the Boston Marathon in 1907. He had a successful career as a professional runner, including a world championship, until his enlistment in the Canadian Army during World War I.

Winnipeg’s John D. Marsh was right up there with Longboat. In 1906, Marsh beat the Olympic champion, Alf Sherring, at a 5 mile exhibition race in Winnipeg. Marsh did well in the lucrative professional running circuit all over North American, winning, among other races, the All Canadian Marathon Derby in Toronto in 1909.

May 2 is Authors for Indies Day

bookstore-located-city-streets-34709102

May 2 is the inaugural “Authors for Indies Day” in Canada. Writers all across the country will be honouring the independent booksellers who champion their books every other day of the year.

I’ll be helping out at Whodunit Mystery Bookstore on May 2. I’ll be chatting with you punters starting at 1pm. At 3pm, I’ll be doing a talk on Scottish mystery books. And we’ll all have nummies.

Winnipeg is a great book town and we’re lucky to have the number of bookstores we do, small and large. They’re still here in spite of a very difficult environment but we can’t be complacent. Think about what this city would be like without Whodunit, or Bison Books or McNally Robinson.

On May 2, support your local independent bookstore by dropping by and buying a book or two.

See Whodunit? Bookstore here: http://www.whodunitcanada.com/home.

See the “Authors for Indies” website here: http://www.authorsforindies.com/

The Victorian Back Yard

I was flapping my gums in a recent post about that golden time when we all used to sit on our front verandas interacting like crazy with our neighbours and in general going all Jane Jacobsy. Like most romantic notions, this one needs to be tempered with reality. David, aforementioned walking urban encyclopedia, pointed out to me that there were some very practical reasons why our Victorian ancestors would choose to sit out at the front of their houses, rather than in the back. Those reasons were: the coal chute, the garbage cans and the outdoor privy.

The older neighbourhoods in Winnipeg were designed with back lanes long before the days when car ownership was common. These lanes accommodated the service wagons that collected garbage, brought coal to your house and periodically dug out the contents of your privy. The Victorians would rather have died than talk about the latter, which is what has made research for this post difficult. In fact they did die of typhoid fever in sufficient numbers that the city finally banned outdoor privies and made sewer connections mandatory for property owners. That finally brought an end to the typhoid epidemics that regularly plagued Winnipeg prior to 1910.

I’ve looked for a photograph of an ordinary back yard c 1900 without success. So, meanwhile, here’s another fantastic veranda. It’s Dalnavert Museum, the Hugh John Macdonald house, now taking on a new lease on life under the management of the Friends of Dalnavert Museum.

Dalnavert

Dalnavert Museum

Manitoba Book Awards 2015

stack of booksThe nominees for the annual Manitoba Book Awards were announced this week. And I was very excited to see that Put on the Armour of Light has made it to the short list for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award. Also wonderful to note that Alison Preston and Allan Levine, both of whom have appeared on portage and slain, are nominated too. Preston’s Blue Vengeance is on the short list for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and Levine’s Toronto: Biography of a City is nominated both for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction.

Congratulations to all the nominees. The depth of the lists shows the richness of talent available here.

See the complete list of nominees here: http://manitobabookawards.com/

Homage to the Veranda

I indulged my nostalgia for the veranda by setting several key scenes in Put on the Armour of Light on the veranda of the Skene house on Balmoral Street.

213 Home St. 1915 AOM Foote N2473

213 Home St, 1915, AOM Foote N2473

Something valuable was lost when, after WWII, new suburban houses were built without the large street-facing verandas that had dominated entrances for several generations. When the front veranda became the back deck, we lost a unique and more social space. Front verandas are that neutral place where you can sense the doings of the house, yet not get caught up in them. Or you can view the street without being on the street. In strait-laced Victorian society, some liberties were allowed on the veranda. You would be within eyeshot and earshot of a chaperone, yet be alone with a person of the opposite sex. In the days before air-conditioning, the family could sit out on the veranda in the evening, mother with her mending, father reading the paper by the light of a coal oil lamp, both of them keeping an eye out for their children who would be playing somewhere close by with their friends. Because houses of that era were built close together, you might chat back and forth with your neighbours who would also be sitting out on their verandas.

Victorian and Edwardian house builders in Winnipeg created some great verandas.

residences A D Irish & H. Benard 1903

residences of A. D. Irish & H. Benard, 1903

Or, equally fascinating but a little more modest.

Sanderson Terrace Carlton St 1903

Sanderson Terrace, Carlton St., 1903

Burning Books in Mosul

February 22 to 28 is Freedom to Read week in Canada. Not so in Mosul, in Northern Iraq, where ISIS has just bombed the Mosul Public Library, destroying a reported 10,000 books and 700 rare manuscripts. The attack, which took place on Feb. 22, involved the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Because of the difficulty of getting reliable news out of Iraq, sources differ as to the extent of the damage, the number of volumes involved, whether some books have been “booknapped” by ISIS and squirrelled away somewhere, or whether all have been destroyed. What is clear is that ever since ISIS gained control of Mosul in 2014, it has undertaken a campaign of cultural “cleansing” that involves destruction and ransacking of museums, libraries, universities and historic sites. Unverified photographs show piles of books being burned in public squares. Churches and historic sites of the Christian minority in Mosul have been particularly targeted and most of the Christians of the city have now fled.

mosul book burning

Book burning in Mosul. Photograph source is unverified.

Why mourn the loss of books, when so many innocent lives have been snuffed out in this conflict? I don’t mean to minimize that tragedy in any way or to rank the loss of a book as higher than the loss of a human life. But when you burn, say, a rare manuscript, a unique cultural item, even if copies or photographs exist, no mere facsimile will make up for the loss of the original. That is a loss that will be felt by every succeeding generation.

Read more here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-burns-thousands-of-rare-books-and-manuscripts-from-mosuls-libraries-10068408.html

From Novel to Screen

Duddy Kravitz

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

If you’re fascinated by the process of adapting a novel or short story for the screen, Cinemathèque, McNally Robinson Booksellers and the Manitoba Writer’s Guild are presenting a series of movie screenings followed by discussions on that very subject.

Participants are encouraged to read the book in advance of seeing the film at Cinemathèque. After the movie, discussion will be led by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Alison Gillmor. The events take place on Wednesday evenings at 7PM once a month from January to June. The first film was Sarah Polley’s 2006 “Away from Her” based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” Next on Feb. 25 will be “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) based on the novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler.

To register for the discussion and screenings, sign up in advance at 204-925-3456 ext. 106. Tickets $9 per screening.

For information go to: https://www.winnipegfilmgroup.com/event/from-novel-to-screen-the-apprenticeship-of-duddy-kravitz/

Other films in the series are:

Persuasion (1995), March 25
Crash (1996), April 29
High Fidelity (2000) May 27
Rachel, Rachel, (1968) June 24

Two Assiniboine Parks

My friend David, a walking encyclopedia of Winnipeg urban history, asked me why I had mis-named the park mentioned along the route of the foot race in Put on the Armour of Light. And that reminded me of this photograph and its story.

AM Assiniboine Park c 1910 N25 Fort RougeThe Archives of Manitoba description of this photograph says, “Assiniboine Park 3 N25”. When I first looked at it some years ago, I said to myself, “There’s something wrong here.” I count at least four houses in the background. But the photo looks as if it dates from about 1905 and at that time, houses would not have been visible from Assiniboine Park, the large suburban city park that all Winnipeggers know and love. Tuxedo, the suburb on the eastern edge of Assiniboine Park, was not developed until the 1920s and 1930s. And also, the style of the plantings and the rustic bench and the bandstand in the distance didn’t fit with the more natural English landscape style of Assiniboine Park.

I thought that the photograph had been mis-labelled. I was wrong about that, but it wasn’t until I looked in Henderson’s Directory for 1900, that I found out why.

What we know today as Fort Rouge Park—located on the south bank of the Assiniboine River, off River Avenue in Fort Rouge—was originally called “Assiniboine Park”. It was, in fact, the first land purchased by the newly minted Winnipeg Public Parks Board in 1893.

When the land was bought for the large suburban park west of the developed part of the city in 1904, the Board decided to name the new park, “Assiniboine Park”. This meant that they had to rename the existing Assiniboine Park, and so it became Fort Rouge Park.

So David was right. The park that my fictional runners run past was Assiniboine Park in 1899, not Fort Rouge Park, as I named it in the book. But I knew my Winnipeg readers would be confused if Charles and Trevor were supposed to be running down River Avenue and all of a sudden they were instantly transported to a place 6 kilometres further west.